Sleep Walking Elite: An Analysis

I enjoy writing about music from time to time, whether it’s about a particular song, or a band, or the nature of music in general. Like many people, I listen to music fairly frequently, and have noticed that the sound of different kinds of music can have powerful effects on one’s mood and energy. While it seems to be the music that is the source of this power, the lyrics can sometimes give insight into the thoughts and mindset that led to the creation of the sound.

I had never really listened to Chevelle much before, but their new hit from last month, “Sleep Walking Elite,” has both the best kind of calm, “flow-state” energy shared by much of Tool‘s and A Perfect Circle‘s discography, and the sorts of lyrics worth reading with a magnifying glass.

Let’s take a look at the lyrics:

Rushed and told
They’re bred to continue
Be at their marks
But some
Withhold and won’t be
Held under the spell

The first line is a description of the subjects of the song: those who are “rushed” and “told” (a clever use of verbs as adjectives in a clear and viscerally understandable fashion). Easy to connect to, and possibly even familiar to the listener at a personal level? Now the subject of the song is not all people who are “rushed and told,” as we will get to shortly, but it’s a nice, tense hook that the listener can understand and get invested in. Both adjectives are emasculating, which will become relevant later.

The second and third line take the first and immediately expand it into sinister dimensions. These people are not just harried by mysterious forces, but have been created for the purpose of being worked, like slaves but worse…

…but there’s a glimmer of hope, maybe? “Some withhold, and won’t be held under the spell.” It almost sounds like a rebellion against oppression, a revolt against the forces of rushing and telling. How manly!

However, this is not what Peter and Sam Loeffler are describing:

Bribes when tried
They’ve focused on the balling
Of a man
’til now
Got left inside the
Underbelly’s choke

Here it is. The people being described — the “sleep-walking elite” — are not rebels against the powerful, but would-be heirs to the power… except it didn’t work out as they’d hoped. They bribed and otherwise leveraged their way up the ladder, trying to fasten themselves to a powerful patron, but then were left out to dry in the dark and hidden world that they had entered.

Does this remind you of anyone? Perhaps a politician or three? A social activist, trying to signal all the appropriate virtues?

Well you assumed
At least they’ll call us men again
For those shadows
That keep on crawling
Out from under

The long-held “youuuuuu” and “assuuuuuuumed” in the song really emphasize the pointing out of a fault. “You assumed that if you acted as they did, at least you’d be men again.” The emasculation would end, or at least, it would purchase a verbal pat on the back. They’d call you a man, a feeling our subject can’t find in his rushed and told natural state.

Except they don’t even do that.

And as it turns out, “they” are a lot more hidden and more sinister than our subject assumed. Our “sleep walking elite” thought he could be one of them if he simply did as they (the rulers) do. But he can never be be one of them, because he is not a “cloaked shadow.”

What is a “cloaked shadow?” Something darker than you are.

Rest assured
The sleep walking elite
When their days
Are numbered like the shallow

Not the elite who sleep-walk, but the elite of the greater number of sleep-walkers. They are “elite” because they aspire to overcome their place among the masses, but instead become all the more deeply entrenched in their place because of their chosen path of escape.

When they sit on their knees
On their knees,
On their knees,
As they sit on their knees,
On their knees,
On their knees,

Musicians who are capable of writing complex lyrics who emphasize a single phrase repeatedly are usually not doing so by accident. What’s so special about “on their knees?”

To start with, listen to how Peter sings it. His voice descends a note each word, with an effect that is sad, deploring, almost despairing. As if to say, how can you not see how unmanly this is? Bending the knee to these spell-casting unnamed rulers is exactly what the sleep-walking elite try, in their hopes of escaping the emasculating treadmill of their lives.

Why would anyone call you men again?

And you assumed
At least they’ll call us men again
For those shadows
That keep on crawling out from under cloaks
Well, you assumed
At least they’ll call us men again
For those shadows
That keep on crawling out from under–
You assumed
At least they’ll call us men again
For those shadows
That keep on crawling out from under…

As others have written about, and as Chevelle has now sung about, perhaps it’s better not to play their game.

So, to bring this full circle, how does the dark content of the lyrics create the powerful, energizing, almost hatefulexperience of the sound?

My guess is that the subject of evil people — and those who support them — brings out all of the most combative energies in the artist. If he is good, and puts this feeling into his music, then the listener will hear the sound of the composers feelings when he thinks about the subject of his lyrics. Two other plausible examples of this come from A Perfect Circle, namely “The Doomed” and “Pet.” The lyrics of the former describe a new kind of religious doctrine of callous individualism (“Good luck, you’re on your own”), while the lyrics of the latter are a lilting and insidious quasi-lullaby from a narrator who promises to keep the listener safe from “pain, and truth, and choice, and other poison devils.” Because Maynard clearly holds both callous disregard and condescending paternalism as kinds of evil, the thoughts of such people bring out that kind of cool, contemplative hatred, just like Peter and the climbers who suck up to the evil powerful in hopes of becoming the masters they had sought to escape.

When transformed into music, it makes for some truly enjoyable listening that can impart some of that motivating energy into those who hear it.